Eastward is a game I’ve been eagerly anticipating since playing the demo almost two years ago, but its development has been underway for even longer. Finally, it’s time to embark on a journey eastward across the train tracks. Prior to the start of your adventure in this action-adventure-RPG, the reclusive John discovers Sam, a lively young girl, trapped in a chamber while digging, and takes care of her from that point forward.
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Right from the beginning, it’s clear that Eastward’s world is vastly different from our own and on the brink of collapse. While the inhabitants of Potcrock Isle live underground, unaware of the dangers lurking above, the surface is plagued by a noxious miasma that consumes all living things, yet people still struggle to survive.
Eastward shares many similarities with 2D Zelda games, more so than its other sources of inspiration. John wields a frying pan, which functions similarly to a sword, and carries a limited number of bombs. As you progress, you’ll acquire ranged weapons (with a shared ammo pool), while Sam gains abilities that consume different energy meters. She can’t directly attack, but she can stun enemies, which proves quite useful. Sam can also temporarily remove certain plants and miasma, both of which John is unable to deal with.
The locations you traverse are often dungeon-like and filled with puzzles that impede progress. Thankfully, none of them are particularly difficult, mostly involving finding keys and using bombs strategically. The duo usually stays together, but occasionally you’ll need to separate them to navigate and solve these puzzles. Their health is shared, and they cannot be in separate rooms, so I often had to swiftly switch between them and maneuver them around hazards. At one point, I struggled with figuring out what to do in a specific boss fight, more than any other challenge in the game. Speaking of boss encounters, they are a highlight, especially those that require you to switch between the duo and their respective weapons and abilities. When my fiancé watched me play, he compared it to Doom Eternal because of how I switched weapons and tactics for different types of enemies.
During your exploration, you’ll come across various treasures, such as salt (the currency), upgrade parts for improving your weapons and carrying capacity, heart orbs, and ingredients. As I progressed, I discovered hidden areas, not just behind cracked walls. By following one secluded path, I stumbled upon a new ability for Sam, which I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t been curious. Taking a page from Breath of the Wild, you can use different ingredients to cook meals that replenish hearts and potentially provide temporary hearts and other buffs. Cooking involves a slot mini-game where match-ups increase the quality, and using spices enhances the bonuses. I do wish I could skip the cooking cutscene even when trying new recipes. Personally, I found eating to be a lifesaver, and once I discovered the recipe for a fish sandwich, I always had one with me. Spotting a stove and, more importantly, memory-storing refrigerators always gave me a sense of relief.
There are often significant gaps between exploration and combat moments. While I enjoyed the character interactions during these quieter moments, I did worry that my combat reflexes might dull. However, there are a few exceptions, such as a stealth section or punting potcrabs into holes. Within towns, you’ll be able to play the popular game Earth Born. Despite its name, it resembles Dragon Quest more closely but with gacha Skylanders (no microtransactions, though!). You can find tokens to use in gashapon machines that reward you with collectible pixballs (monster figures), unlocking different things within this sub-game. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much opportunity to play it myself while preparing for this review, as I inadvertently put it off until it was too late, and there were no game consoles in sight. It seems fun and keeps track of your progress. I hope for an update that allows me to use my clear data (with my pixball collection) to access it from the menu instead of starting the game over. Having an optional game within a game is always a treat.
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Like many others, I was initially drawn to Eastward because of its stunning visuals. The world of Eastward is meticulously crafted with detailed pixel art in a vibrant but gentle color palette. The lighting, whether streaming in through windows or emanating from a CRT screen, adds to the game’s beauty. New Dam City, one of the main locations, particularly showcases urban life in various weather conditions. The animated wheat swaying in the breeze and the adorable celebration from the duo after winning a tough battle demonstrate the care put into the animations. The sprites themselves are magnificent, featuring a range of cartoonish characters that populate the Eastern world. This is why many have likened Eastward to Earthbound. With monsters like bomb-shooting rubber duck plants and teleporting cape-wearing cows, I can understand the comparison. Nevertheless, the game’s style is distinctly its own, and it’s undeniably gorgeous.
I absolutely must get a copy of Eastward’s soundtrack, although I also love the minor tune that plays when you defeat a boss. The music always sets the mood perfectly, whether it feels like you’re in an 80s action movie or listening to the serene sounds of the forest. It’s predominantly electronic, but there’s a good variety of styles, and some tense tracks even incorporate a bit of funk.
Eastward’s writing is superb, making excellent use of the English language. The dialogue brings the characters to life with their unique personalities. This game is filled with cutscenes, and I’m glad that they are accompanied by great dialogue. It’s worth talking to most of the NPCs for the humor alone. You’ll find yourself helping a circus set up tents and discussing the greatness of a game you’ve never played. While John is a silent protagonist, his emotions come through effectively, and Sam’s childlike enthusiasm and curiosity frequently brought a smile to my face. The overall storyline, while initially mysterious and intriguing, ultimately follows a fairly typical narrative, which is somewhat disappointing given the amazing cast, visuals, and sound. However, as whimsical as the world can be with a ghost telling ghost stories or a bulletin board constructed from a man covered in post-it notes, everything feels grounded.
I completed the game in just under twenty hours, but I did miss some secret areas and didn’t fully explore Earth Born, so your playtime will likely be longer. I managed to progress with minimal difficulty, so those seeking a challenging combat or puzzle experience may be disappointed. The periods between action can feel a bit drawn out, but I rarely found the conversations boring. Throughout my playthrough, I encountered no technical issues, aside from a minor visual glitch, and I was able to play without needing to adjust any settings on PC.
Although the primary plot could have benefitted from the same level of energy found in its characters, the adventures of Sam and John are still worth experiencing. Many may initially be drawn in by the music and visuals alone, but the gameplay ensures that Eastward is more than just style. If you’re interested in a Zelda-like game with a strong emphasis on story and characters, you can’t go wrong heading East. Given how impressive Eastward is as a debut game, I’m more than willing to patiently await many more years for a sequel.
Versions tested: PC